(Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017)
Afaa Michael Weaver reaffirms the value and necessity of a worker’s poetics in his latest collection, Spirit Boxing. Here, work is not celebrated for its own sake (as Americans are wont to do) or merely derided as drudgery, but is considered as link between generations and a primary source of hardship, solidarity, pain, pride, and joy. Since the early 1980s, fewer and fewer Americans have entered a factory to go “bare-knuckled against a bold Satan / for eight hours.” Factory labor has largely been outsourced to far-flung, globalized locales by corporations seeking to fatten bottom lines at the expense of workers’ and communities’ livelihoods: “the army of wealth-making sees us, yet does / not see us.” Weaver himself toiled in Baltimore factories during the peak era of American manufacturing in the 1970s and the beginnings of its decline, which affected black and Latino workers before it did most of their white peers. It is a period that appears in this collection imbued with a hint of nostalgia, though Weaver thankfully avoids sentimentality because, honestly, there is little in factory labor to get sentimental about.
In the collection’s preface, Weaver writes that “in nineteenth-century industrial engineering, designers imagined the factory as a perfect machine and workers, themselves machines, as modular systems that served the machines.” Workers, the expendable units of this making-machine, have long maintained a complicated relationship with “culture,” that ill-defined trait wielded by the upper classes like a weapon.. Culture, so it often seems, is an ineffable quality that some other class possesses; workers, whether they’re toiling in a steel mill or a hospital or an office or a restaurant, have been trained to internalize this: “I would walk into the gateway, pass / for a worker, the poet undetected, disbelieved // like Frederick Douglass.” Meanwhile, in the moments stolen back from the bosses,
I sit and sew word onto word when the mill
is down, I study the invocation and wait to see
a poem come out from the skylight in the mesh
of corrugated metal walls, a web of language
looking like nothing, but carrying everything
Weaver knows the work of both the factory and of academia, and he recognizes the “lives of men and women / who went into jobs, who never came home, / who came home and died for pipe dreams.” Unionized factory work once allowed masses of Americans a shot at a better life, but now that union membership is dwindling and factories have mostly gone abroad, fewer and fewer worker-poets remain to chronicle those unattainable pipe dreams:
what pays bills and leaves extra money
to spend in shopping centers, the numbers
racket, or what the wiser of us do, save
for the days we will leave the good job
to go places we can’t go now because
we have to save to go to those places
Though Weaver’s poems reveal the potential for class solidarity across America’s racial divides (and his poem to “Hard Men” is a touching domestic scene of queer workingmen), he also shows the contentious intra-class history of racism: “a bunch of smokestacks with my daddy’s face on it, me now knowing / what pains he had all over his soul just to make a paycheck next / to white folks who wouldn’t talk to him, under white folk who / thought workers is all low life.” In that poem, “Knowledge of Silk,” Weaver records his own personal fortune in light of the pains of his father. What follows is “Beatitudes, the Merciful,” a poem of solidarity and of the friendship between a black laborer and a white laborer; “men who love kindness” and recognized what united them in their own circumstances, over time they passed the same five dollars back and forth between them according to one’s ability and the other’s need.
The significance of what gets made also comes under consideration. For example, in “Ivory Soap, a Whiteness,” Weaver traces in couplets the interconnections of industrial life, how he and his fellow workers of Baltimore’s Procter & Gamble soap factory produced the material that fellow workers used to clean themselves after grueling stretches of labor:
cash registers counting the money we make
for masters who sit in invisible places,
designing our wages, what wages can buy,
while men like my father, black and white,
wash bodies aching with layers of sweat
from mills and the holds of ships filthy
with what it takes to make a life in a nation
obese with forgetting, hungry for what is new.
Leave it to a former laborer in a soap factory to allude to America’s sins of slavery, genocide, and racialized labor in such an understated fashion (“a nation waiting to be washed, made / clean,” he writes in the title poem). Those subtle interconnections of laboring life and American history, prevalent throughout the work, make experiences that may be foreign to many readers feel intimate rather than exotic.
In that vein, Weaver’s farm poems feel most distant from our contemporary, post-industrial experience; most Western lives now are even further removed from rural farm existence than they are the factory. The land for Weaver is both literal and figurative grounding, his father having migrated from rural Virginia to Baltimore to work in factories, as millions of African-Americans did during the Great Migration. Those “shuffling armies of black sharecroppers / leaving the South for the North’s harsh ways, / under waves of assaults,” who found their way to cities like Baltimore, “where Irish men make black babies / with black women they hate and love at once.”
Weaver’s father’s transition from peasant farm labor to proletarian factory labor offers a parallel by which to view Weaver’s transition from factory labor to academic/intellectual labor. And as the poet is tethered to materiality by land, he finds similar grounding through “the deep mercy of knowing hands.” Weaver writes as a citizen of a nation that in many ways has lost respect for manual labor and the knowledge of hands, a nation that privileges the more abstract work of the mind – as if mind and body are separate – yet limits access to its means for development.
That artificial separation of mind and body recurs as the collection unfolds. Early on, Weaver writes of working in an ice-making plant: “Things need / a process, a method for becoming real, / even ice, which is wise enough to return / to water, to unmask itself from the stamp / of human hands, to become mist, steam.” Water has its phases and cycles, as does the factory, as does life. The worker-as-poet transforms and renews the material of the world, as is so with Weaver’s idiosyncratic syncretism of Taijiquan, the Dao De Jing, the Yijing, and the Bible. Weaver has developed a spiritual practice over the years that is aligned with his idea that the “liberation of the worker, his or her reclaiming of life and voice, depends on the awakening of the spirit.”
On its own, Weaver’s line on liberation differs markedly from one that a Marxist would take, though they’d agree on the necessity of an awakening to the reality of their collective situation. But the poet writes of a “wise mind that knows men cannot be makers, // that in making we want to break each other, / ache moving us to refuse to surrender to time/ in factories, catacombs feeding on the spirit.” That desire “to break each other” sounds a lot like alienation, an individual’s separation from the products of their labor and separation from their reality. Weaver’s poems attempt to heal that breach, to produce something that connects one person to another in a world where people are constantly driven apart for someone else’s benefit. He recognized the fellowship and humanity of his fellow workers in Baltimore, as he did workers in China during a visit there. Both groups hold in common the knowledge that, as Weaver puts it, “things ain’t never gonna / be right until we can love a piece of steel without making it be / something, and know the machines have to stop . . . one happy day.”
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Alex Crowley is a reviews editor at Publishers Weekly. Winner of the New School’s 2011 Paul Violi Memorial Prize, his poems and reviews have appeared in Phantom Limb, Forklift Ohio, DIAGRAM, Handsome, Inter